The rise of protests in Africa goes beyond macroeconomics …


Police attempt to control looting during protests in Durban on July 12, 2021 (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Like the rest of the world, the continent has seen public discontent grow even as wealth improves.

Stellah Kwasi for ISS TODAY

First published by The ISS today.

Stellah Kwasi, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria.

Public discontent, defined as the collective sense of frustration and unfulfilled expectations, has increased globally, despite improvements in overall wealth. The same is true for Africa.

Between 1990 and 2019, gross domestic product (GDP) and per capita income increased steadily on the continent, and extreme poverty declined significantly in many countries. Many human development indicators have improved and the overall standard of living has shown an upward trend.

Yet during this period the discontent expressed through protests and riots in Africa grew. According to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to study, this paradox can be explained by the disparate distribution of resources, worsening inequalities and systemic relative deprivation among various groups of people. The Covid-19 has exacerbated these difficulties and frustrations.

Economic factors are essential for understanding the causes and consequences of discontent. But such growth alone does not bring the general well-being of citizens or provide an antidote to unrest. Political uncertainties, poor service delivery and lack of fundamental freedoms can outweigh economic indicators.

Discontent can also manifest itself in means other than public agitation – for example, low levels of civic participation such as voter turnout. Dissatisfaction of this type gradually builds up until an incident triggers widespread violence or revolution, as seen in Tunisia and Burkina Faso.

On the continent, North Africa is the most developed region. Its average per capita income is estimated at $ 11,390 in 2021, or between $ 6,000 and $ 9,100 more than Central, East / Horn and West Africa, the East / Horn region being the least developed.

Figure 1: GDP per capita in African regions

Source: IFs v7.63, historical data from WDI, IMF

But although North Africa has seen the greatest improvements in well-being linked to wealth and income, the region has seen the most protests and riots on the continent in the past decade, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. In fact, in the years leading up to the Arab Spring of 2010, per capita income was on a steep upward trajectory (Figure 1).

However, other parts of Africa began to experience an upsurge in protests and riots from 2007/8 during the global financial crisis. Figure 1 shows that GDP per capita, although improving, was quite modest. Southern Africa has recorded the least progress in this regard and the most pronounced peak of protests and riots. The sharp increase in demonstrations and riots in 2020 (see graph 2) can be attributed to the frustrations and vulnerabilities linked to Covid-19.

Figure 2: Demonstrations and riots in African regions, 1997-2020

Source: Data Project on the Location and Events of Armed Conflicts

These trends expose the relative variation in the sources of discontent and the limitations of using GDP per capita as a cornerstone for measuring well-being.

In Southern Africa and South Africa in particular, the structural challenges arising from apartheid and the failure of successive governments to develop essential services are key factors in the analysis of discontent. This complexity is illustrated by the fact that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.

The sense of relative and absolute deprivation among people over long periods of time with no tangible improvements made frustration boil over. The riots and the looting in July in South Africa can partly be understood through this prism.

In North Africa, the state-led development model that characterizes governance in the region has produced Human development outcomes in education and health over the past five decades. But despite relatively good basic service delivery, the authorities were at odds with their population, whose needs had changed. The public demanded greater political, civil and economic freedom, fueling the Arab Spring.

An important question is whether the protests have brought about a change that can alleviate the discontent that fueled them in the first place. The simple answer is yes, although the change is not always of the type desired and the trajectory is not always linear.

Since the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the only country to have transitioned to democracy. Even so, people’s expectations remain unfulfilled because the new democracy is more electoral than substantive and genuine institutional reform has yet to take place. Algeria and Egypt went through some reforms but backed down, and Libya fell into civil war.

However, in many countries protests have prompted the democratization process, created space for civil society activism and improved human rights. Evidence shows that the protests seek to address discrimination, exclusion, injustice and exploitation, all of which stem from denial and human rights violations.

In several southern African countries, discontent has inspired protests and civic engagement that have brought political change and helped fight corruption and maintain governments. indebted. These achievements must however be accompanied by measures to improve the distribution of economic gains.

Sustainable development is not just about sound macroeconomic indicators such as GDP and per capita income. It involves social, political and economic factors and requires innovative ways to build more inclusive societies. This is especially true for Africa in the middle weakened public finances, rising inequalities and poverty in the wake of Covid-19.

Building trust and strengthening civic institutions to create a sense of collective responsibility is essential for nurturing a strong society. It provides channels for people to voice their grievances and reconnect governments and the people.

Economically, it is important to restructure and create greater inclusion in societies. Decentralized approaches to development that respond to local needs should be encouraged. The emphasis on supporting vulnerable households could increase people’s ability to participate in beneficial economic activities.

To achieve this, development strategies must capitalize on a country’s comparative advantage. More public-private collaborations for increased funding and a sense of ownership must be harnessed. DM

Stellah Kwasi, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria.

Watch the video recording of the ISS-OECD seminar “Protest as a force for change: Africa’s role in global trends”, here.



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